What do you think is the leading driver of project success? Is it agility? Alignment to organizational strategy? Perhaps mature project management processes?
All these are important, but according to PMI’s annual Pulse of the Profession survey, the top driver is having engaged executive sponsors. According to the survey, one in three unsuccessful projects fails to meet goals because of poorly engaged executive sponsors. The survey also found that just under two-thirds of projects and programs even have assigned executive sponsors, suggesting that organizations do not fully recognize the importance of that role.
It does not matter if you are in the public sector or the private sector, creating an organizational project management culture that demands engaged sponsors is critical. Why?
Executive sponsors help the project team and the projects in a number of ways:
• They help the team understand alignment of the project to organizational strategy;
• They champion the project with senior management and throughout the organization;
• They can help clear roadblocks that impede success;
• They can add resources when appropriate; and
• They can act quickly to resolve issues and intervene on escalated issues.
In government work, executive sponsor support of projects is particularly important because publicsector project managers have political considerations and the public interest top of mind.
Who supports executive sponsors?
If sponsors support projects, who supports the executive sponsors? In some organizations, it is the project management office (PMO).
Rose Ann Radosevic, PMP, provides a government perspective of how PMOs can support executive sponsors, as well as contribute to an organization’s project management culture. She is group director, investment portfolio management at Canada Health Infoway, which in 2013 became the first government-funded organization and the first Canadian organization to be named PMO of the Year.
“From the time I started establishing the PMO’s team, processes and tools ten years ago, we were backed by an executive that understood the role of a PMO in ensuring transparency and accountability of our investments in digital health. This was instrumental to our success,” said Ms. Radosevic. “Our executive management team also played a vital role in the successful implementation of our risk management framework, which was key to fostering a culture that encouraged frank reporting of issues and risks.”
Echoing the importance of PMOs and executive sponsor development is Ruth Anne Guerrero, PMP, Senior Vice President, TD Bank, N.A., Project Management Office Head. “PMOs traditionally focus their efforts on providing support and guidance for project managers, however they tend to focus less on supporting executive sponsors who play a critical role in ensuring project success,” she says.
“An effective sponsor will help the project team understand the project’s alignment to strategy, champion the project with senior management, and clear roadblocks. Usually the ‘most logical’ executive is named as project sponsor, meaning that it’s the person with the largest stake in project success.
However, having the most ‘skin in the game’ does not ensure that this person has a background in project management or understands their project responsibilities.
“At TD Bank, we recognize that there is a need to broaden the PMO scope to include project sponsors, so we’re developing support and guidelines for executive sponsors who may be new to their role,” says Ms. Guerrero. “This will ensure that our project sponsors not only understand how vital they are to the success of the project, they will also view the PMO as a valued resource that they can rely on when they require support and guidance.”
Overextended, poorly communicating and unprepared sponsors
PMI’s survey found that executive sponsors need support. For one thing, they are overextended, sponsoring an average of three projects and spending an average of 13 hours a week on each project.
Communication gaps are affecting sponsors’ ability to effectively perform their role. Communication is vital because people both above and below executive sponsors are relying on them to be able to influence and align stakeholders, exhibit leadership and make decisions.
Yet communication to the sponsor from the project manager is just as important as communication from the sponsor. Regular feedback and progress reports calibrated to the appropriate level of detail for the sponsor help produce better project and program outcomes.
Executive sponsors can be unprepared for their roles. Few organizations provide training or professional development for executive sponsors.
Failing to eliminate or reduce the factors that limit sponsors’ ability to be engaged can be expensive. According to PMI’s 2014 Pulse of the Profession Report, of every US$1 billion spent on projects and programs, US$109 million is wasted due to poor project performance.
Mind the gap
If you ask your executive sponsors to rate themselves, you will probably get a different answer than if you asked your project managers to rate them.
This table (see digital version) shows the wide gap between the percentage of what sponsors think they do frequently and what project managers think their sponsors do frequently.
What can be done?
If lack of engagement of executive sponsors is an issue in your agency, PMI’s Pulse of the Profession In-Depth Report: Executive Sponsor Engagement — Top Driver of Project and Program Success, with contributions from Boston Consulting Group, offers some remedies for organizations.
For starters, make sure your project has an executive sponsor—the research shows that less than two-thirds of projects do. As noted before, creating an organizational project management culture that increases the importance of engaged sponsors is critical.
Professional development might help your executive sponsor be more effective. This can happen through your project management office (PMO), external consultants or mentoring from other executive sponsors.
Effective sponsors can most help projects and programs with their political savvy and influence, excellent communications skills, ability to make decisions and knowledge of good project management practices. An effective sponsor should know enough details about the project that he or she has the ability to micromanage and make knowledgeable decisions—but leave the management of the project to the project manager.
Not having an effective sponsor is like having a great hockey team but a poor general manager or owner. To grab the most success from your initiatives, be sure that your executive sponsor is engaged and involved. If they are not, these recommendations can help.
Knowledge is Power
• Nearly nine out of 10 organizations have executive sponsors who have at least a basic understanding of project and program management.
• At organizations where sponsors have expert or advanced project management knowledge, 74% of projects meet goals.
• At organizations where sponsors have little or no project management knowledge, only 58% of projects meet goals. However, the majority of organizations (62%) do not provide development for the role of executive sponsor.